Last night, I hung out with a collection of students, some audio instructors, and a West Coast movie-audio wizard, Tim Hoogenakker, who was at our school to talk about audio in movies, surround sound, and all things Hollywood. Things, are as everywhere, dismal. The economy has squashed hope and employment all over the country, including Hollywood. Audio folks of all sorts are out of work, underemployed, and on the edge of unemployment.
On the other hand, the $400M chick-flick, Avatar, which is as of this writing the 2nd largest grossing movie in history. I have no clue what the 1st is, sorry. Supposedly, this one movie is making the industry look profitable. I can imagine this is true, since when my wife and I saw Avatar the multiplex theater was practically empty outside of the lines for Avatar on three or four of the theater's screens. Far better movies, like The Road or Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are barely drawing flies in the same market. Avatar hit the market with the right combination of predictable writing, chick-friendly cutsie characters and video-game action and tons of marketing. Honestly, it's hard to imagine the movie making a profit, even with the monster gross profits announced, after the enormous budget and world-busting PR.
For me, the most interesting moment of the night came after the event was wrapped up and some of us were talking about movie economics. Tim described all of the movies that had left California for cheaper climates; Canada, Iowa, New Mexico, and beyond. I brought up the most recent Cohen Brothers' film, A Serious Man, that was filmed in the Cities. Another local audio guy dismissed that movie because "it only cost $6M."
On the way home, I was still going over "it only cost $6M" in my head. It struck me that good parts of the game have changed and not many have noticed. As a long-time SF fan, with damn little tolerance for Hollywood SF, I saw something happen in 2009 that should have flipped Hollywood upside down and inside out. Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp's District 9 completely blows away all SF and story-line aspects of Avatar and did it for 1/20th of the budget. Of course, District 9 was not 3D and that's something to consider, but on every other plane District 9 was a total triumph of movie-making. If you didn't know what was coming up in every scene of Avatar you're either retarded or just arrived on this earth with no experience in either movies or television. District 9 was story-driven and interesting enough that even someone as movie-jaded as me could consider seeing it again. The only way I'll sit through Avatar twice is if I'm trapped in a wheelchair and can't get to a staircase.
Technology has obsoleted most of the Hollywood industrial base. A creative kid with a few creative friends can outdo hoards of James Camerons and all of Hollywood's business lawyers in story-telling, special effects, acting, and (soon to follow) distribution. A great story can go Internet-viral before it hits the screens. Stay tuned for the changing of the guard. It's on its way to your town, even if your town is in southern California.